Two of queer theory’s leading contemporary scholars, Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman, have collaborated on a slender, yet powerful, three-essay volume about sex and interrelational attachments.
Both scholars are coming off critical success in their previous works: Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, the 2012 winner of the Rene Wellek Award, is arguably the greatest theoretical text to be published in the last decade, while Edelman’s No Future, controversial for what some call its nihilist, and narcissistic, argument, offers an unrepentant critique “reproductive futurism” through the trope of the child.
Both these texts converge in this new endeavor, one in which the theoretical impetus is to advance the idea of negativity while denuding it of its anti-social tenor by thinking about the political significance, and the productivity, of negativity as an ethic. “The historic practice of LGBTQ studies has been toward reclaiming and repairing lost histories and ongoing practices of delegitimation,” they explain in the introduction, “Negativity as a source for social theory tends to reject the impulse to repair social relations that appear to us irreparable, and in that light, our work might seem quietistic, apolitical, nihilist, defeatist, or even irresponsible.”
In the history of queer theory in academia, the idea of negativity as a political and social ethic is born more recently out of the anti-social thrust—queer is that which resists political and social order and indulgently refuses all systemic complicity—and more broadly from the new historical strain of queer studies invested in recovering “negative affects,” most notably “gay shame,” as integral to re-constructing LGBT and queer history narratives.
Their working definition of negativity, in simple terms, aims to demystify relations of their idealism, on a meta-scale, as well as all optimism: “Negativity points to many kinds of relation in what follows, from the unbearable, often unknowable, psychic conflicts that constitute the subject to the social forms of negation that also, but differently, produce subjectivity. Generally negativity signifies a resistance to or undoing of the stabilizing frameworks of coherence imposed on thought and lived experience.”
This is why they focus on sex, because sex, “as a locus for optimism, is a site at which the promise of overcoming division an antagonism is frequently played out. But,” they contend, “the consequences of such efforts to resolve our social and psychic contradictions can include the establishment of sexual norms and the circumscription of sex for socially legitimated ends [....]”
“Would living with negativity entail the death of the optimism that animates desire an energizes politics?” This is Berlant and Edelman’s optimal question, although one has to wonder about the impetus of denuding sex of its optimism. What if I wanted a sexual relationship, one not predicated on homogeneity or driven by the desire to reproduce the liberal family structure? What does an intimate relationship look like without optimism, which is by definition is born in the present but which extends into the future? Are relationships impossible? This last question, to me, seems distinct from any reparative concern of either Berlant’s or Edelman’s, both of whom are critical of the socio-political desire to repair (a relation).
This is the problem with the queer discourse of negativity: it constantly defines itself in terms of the negative, in terms of what it’s not. Frankly, and to invoke the hot queer term of the moment, it’s quite a privileged position to delimit one’s ethics in terms of the negative—perhaps it’s a symptom of living within the confines of academia.
Yes, we all know that sex is powerful; we’ve all “become undone” by it. Berlant and Edelman’s point that sex is an unmooring of one’s sovereignty is insightful. “When it takes the shape of intimate relationality, [sex] is both disturbing and anchoring, and therefore never stilled enough to be a concrete foundation for the house of life or the house of pain; expressing a desire for disturbance, sex cannot also defend entirely against it.”
At the same time, when Edelman claims that the sexual “encounter, viewed as traumatic or not, remains bound to the nonfutural insistence in sex of something nonproductive, nonteleological, and divorced from meaning making,” and that “[i]n this sense sex without optimism invokes the negativity of sex as a defining and even enabling condition,” one has to think deeply about what kind of sex these scholars are having. This statement, in fact, lies at odds with a lot of queer scholarship concerning affect theory; if all interaction is affective, then surely there is meaning to be had? Or, perhaps this is the lesbian in me: I can’t imagine sex that is so lame that it is completely devoid of any affective force such that it has no affective resonance on my body or mind, and that, therefore, it has no “meaning.”
Structurally, the form of their collaboration takes the form of the dialogue, which not only provides both scholar the space for thinking through the possibility of “sex without optimism,” but it is perhaps a nod to a different methodological and critical investment in the future of the humanities, one that actually seeks to foster a dialogue with a community of readers outside the pedantically prescribed academic norm—you know, the dozen or so individuals who can navigate an argument through overwrought academic jargon. In this regard, Berlant’s language is more digestible, if only because her discourse works primarily within the parameters of cultural studies, as opposed to Edelman’s more cumbersome working from and within psychoanalysis.
While the central inquiry about the encounter between negativity and nonsovereignty is not radically new, Berlant and Edelman’s three-act dialogue is wonderfully intriguing, especially in regard to how the dialogue itself bears witness to the intellectual process of “thinking through” in the dialogic form.
Sex, or The Unbearable
By Lauren Berlant and Lee Edelman
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822355946, 168 pp.
“I remembered what my friend China wrote in her punk parenting zine when we were young moms. ‘I want to be the female Bukowski, the female Burroughs, but instead I’m just the female.’ In that elevator right then, I felt like such the female—the caregiver.” –Ariel Gore, The End of Eve
In this illuminating new release by Ariel Gore, prolific writer and editor of Hip Mama Magazine, the entire concept of caretaking between female relations is brought to the forefront. Chronicling her years spent caregiving for her mother, Eve, as she declined with stage IV lung cancer, Gore manages to hit on all cylinders of the complex ambivalence of love and relationships. In this memoir, the reader obtains access to a nontraditional narrative of caretaking: Gore takes on the task of seeing her mother through her dying days, while also confronting cycles of abuse and manipulation in their relationship. (more…)
Aside from the lgbt books that crossed my path recently, one book, The Lives of Angels by Emanuel Swedenborg, caused me to look twice. (more…)
A fat dog overjoyed with the plastic steak in its mouth. How Neil Young sounds like an alley cat. People-watching on the subway. Overheard snippets of conversations. The PR job, full of positive words, that’s starting to bring him down after fifteen years. The pills he must now take to maintain his body. An eight year relationship yet no shared apartment. These are some of single-sentence paragraphs of stray observations and journal notes that build up to a portrait of the uneasy stasis that is Clifford Chase’s life in New York City during the early months of 2001. (more…)
Family Issue (Bella Books) is set in southern Louisiana, near the Gulf of Mexico. Denni Hope, who grew up near Fortune Farm, has been asked by her ex-girlfriend, Patty Price, to investigate a rash of violence and vandalism which is plaguing the farm. Denni is a trained insurance investigator, and is quite willing to use her skills to help Patty. She is not sure, however, how she’ll feel about seeing Patty with Yolanda Elliott, the woman Patty left her for. (more…)
From a dank upstairs room in New York’s LGBT Center to marches on the streets of Paris, Kelly Cogswell takes us deep between the pages of the Lesbian Herstory Archive and between the frames of the documentary, Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire, Too, to bring us her insights and memories of the influential and fierce international grassroots outfit.
Cogswell was among the founding members of the New York City based lesbian action group, The Lesbian Avengers, which turned into one of the most important, vociferous movements on the queer liberation front. In her memoir, Cogswell details the assembly, growth, and eventual demise of the legendary dyke activist collective.
She describes this accomplished and diverse assembly of women ready to get down to business. At “the first Avengers meeting,” she admits, “I was really just there to be among girls, and to find out if I belonged. I wanted to. Anybody would.” The matter of belonging or not, reoccurs throughout the book both in personal and in larger political contexts. It is this anxiety around belonging that is evident not only Cogswell’s persistent questions about who or what is a citizen, but also in the disintegration of the Avengers.
The story begins with the group’s heyday when, as Cogswell writes, “…the Avengers were running like the well-oiled machine you hear so much about and almost never see… It was like magic…” The description of the iconic moment, when, at a demonstration in memory of two queers burned alive in their home in Oregon, a line of Avengers lit torches on their tongues and then extinguished the flames in their mouths, is nothing short of electrifying: “We raised our flames triumphantly into the air, leaned back, and swallowed them down. The crowd cheered, a little uncertainly, at watching a circus trick transformed into a sacrament.”
As the group continued to grow, spread their message, share their skills, and build community around actions, racial and cultural misunderstanding, in-fighting, and horizontal hostility brought the group to a slow crumble. The diverse membership began accusing one another of being racist, classist, exclusive, unforgiving, manipulative, and worse. The presumption of goodwill was non-existent. Through a series of coalitions and new branches, the Avengers struggled to maintain their cohesive identity as “a direct-action group focused on issues vital to lesbian survival and visibility.”
As a way to contextualize these tensions, Cogswell relays an encounter on a Brooklyn subway soon after she shaved her head. “…A bunch of black men surrounded me on the train once, asking, ‘Happy about Bensonhurst, you racist skinhead?’ Until one guy finally said, ‘It’s just her ‘do, man, like that singer,’ and they moved off…” This incident highlights the ways that difference (in this case Cogswell’s shaved head) are read and misread and how identifiers shift meaning depending on the context. Later in her story, Cogswell encounters similar questions as she struggles to unravel what it means to be a citizen of the United States, or of anywhere else for that matter.
Eating Fire is a reminder, an homage, a call to rally, and a plea to this generation of queer women. Change, Cogswell seems to insist, is not only not a process any of us can afford to sit out, but that our participation as women, as queers, as immigrants, as people of color, is fundamental to our collective freedom.
This book swells with astute observations about what the Internet did to and for activism and the difficulty of creating movements that are at once diverse and community-specific. While the book leaves us with more questions than answers about how we should proceed toward liberation, it does gesture toward two possibilities.
First: eat fire. While the Lesbian Avengers actually did this as part of demonstrations, eating fire also provides a powerful metaphor not only for the total bravery of acting, but also the physical and spiritual demands of those actions.
Secondly: return home. Done without an ounce of sentimentality, Cogswell provides a shard of hope in her final recalling of a trip back to Kentucky where she meets a small group of young queer locals: “We stared at each other in mutual awe. They thought it was cool I was living in New York and had been a Lesbian Avenger and had made it as far as Paris. I was impressed that they were still at home. In Kentucky. Smack-dab in the middle of the Bible Belt.” This homecoming leaves readers with the feeling that belonging and being seen are possible.
While this story is tenacious in some moments and vulnerable in others, it is always triumphant.
Inspiring and absolutely heroic. This story belongs to us all.
Eating Fire: My Life as a Lesbian Avenger
By Kelly Cogswell
University of Minnesota Press
Paperback, 9780816691166, 256 pp.
In his debut novel, Revolutionary, author Alex Myers puts forth a refreshingly unique Revolutionary War story. While still rooted in the loss and triumph of bloody battles, Myers challenges the well-worn patriot’s tale by focusing on Deborah Sampson Gannett, a real-life historical figure who successfully disguised herself as a man in order to enlist in the Revolutionary army. Under the name Robert Shurtliff, Deborah shook free of her small town in order to get a taste of what she really wanted: freedom and opportunity, two highly American values that have been (and still are) denied to some citizens. (more…)
A church and a bar are two very different institutions, but Marie Cartier, in Baby, You Are My Religion: Women, Gay Bars, and Theology Before Stonewall (Acumen Publishing Limited), proposes that the bar, and specifically the gay bar, served both a communal and spiritual function for many queer women in the mid-twentieth century, pre-Stonewall. (more…)
In his well-reviewed debut Enter, Night, a chilling and atmospheric throwback to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot fused with the gothic leanings of an early V.C. Andrews novel, author Michael Rowe added both depth and dimension to the otherwise overplayed vampire mythos, injecting it with some much needed viability. (more…)
For most of the lgbt community, knowledge of Ballroom culture in America begins and ends with Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. While the film’s release was one of the defining moments of lgbt culture with its masterful (though not unproblematic) depiction of the genius and spectacle of Ballroom performers balanced with the reality of urban poverty, racism, and the AIDS epidemic they faced, its subject matter has largely been frozen in time as 80s nostalgia and aestheticized in the lgbt imaginary. The snarky quotes, over the top fashions, and Madonna’s appropriation of Voguing have stuck in lgbt culture, but the film’s messages about black lgbt life seem to have faded from memory. (more…)